Friday, March 28, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #28: Logicomix

Logicomix is an unusual comic given that it's both a biographical comic about a famous logician/philosopher, a comic about the history of logic and an autobiographical comic about the story's creative team debating its approach with regard to its subject. It has moments of being quite gripping and other moments where the creators seem to lose their footing, especially in those autobiographical segments. The premise is an intriguing one: it's about the philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell and his tireless quest to create a logical set of first principles in mathetmatics. At the same time, the principle writer Apostolos Doxiadis is engaged with his friend and theoretical computer scientist Christos H. Papadimitriou regarding key aspects of the story, debating him throughout about the nature of Russell's struggle as well as occasionally clarifying and doing some further explication of the stakes involved in this struggle.

The framing device they used was ingenious: a Russell lecture prior in an American university prior to American involvement in World War II. Russell was known for his pacifism and protests regarding World War I, and he was asked by a number of anti-war protesters to speak out against America joining World War II. He responded with a lecture on "The Role of Logic on Human Affairs" that began with him going over his life's story. That lecture allowed the occasional interruption by the authors and various other segues. The bits about Russell being raised by a stern grandmother who kept the fate of his parents a secret from him until he discovered it on his own were absolutely riveting. Russell's antipathy toward his religious education and immediate excitement upon being taught how to do his first mathematical proof were other interesting biographical markers. I did find it interesting that the authors mostly chose to skip over Russell's loudly avowed atheism, because this to me seemed part of the fuel for his refusal to accept any kind of first principle on faith.

The whole point of Russell's lecture was that reconciling logic and human nature is just as doomed as his quest to provide first principles of mathematics made of unshakable logic. His own logical paradox that he created that obliterated the usefulness of set theory as a potential foundational pillar set him about on a fruitless quest to somehow circumnavigate his own objection. He agreed with his former student Ludwig Wittgenstein that "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent", in that the most important problems are those that cannot be addressed by logic (and language). A running theme throughout the book is Papadatos wondering out loud why so many logicians' lives ended in madness, paranoia and outright tragedy, as though their descent into pure reason cut them off from their emotional lives. Papadimitriou disagrees, saying that while logic may not have gotten its foundation, its thinkers went in the opposite direction to create the computers that have changed the world for the better.The creative crew tried to dovetail the essential problems of this foundational quest with a performance of Aeschylus' Oresteia, a play that's all about resolving paradoxes with lateral thinking, in much the same way as a computer can be seen as a way of cutting through the suppression of knowledge. It's an interesting idea that is not resolved; instead, it merely serves to tantalize the reader. The problem with Logicomix is that it's neither fish nor fowl. It's not a fleshed-out work of philosophy (indeed, its dependence on the tiresome nature of analytical philosophy and insistence on ignoring continental philosophy or quantum physics got on my nerves). It fails as a biography of Russell, even as it reveals a number of interesting facts about him. The artwork is entirely perfunctory: functional but blandly attractive at every turn, with page compositions that merely support the text rather than add much to it. It's not a successful or fleshed-out debate between Papdatos and Papadimitriou, nor does it do much to advance Papadatos' journalistic interest in the connection between logic and madness. It tries to do too much while resolving too little. Its scope and ambition is impressive, but as a reader I sensed that the book got away from its creators very early on and the resulting product was a kind of failed attempt to get it back under their control--much like Russell and collaborator Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, the failed attempt to reconcile Russell's paradox while providing a foundational theorem.

1 comment:

  1. For non academics, as myself, I found the book a terrific read, without the disappointments of what should have been more fleshed out etc. Quantum physics? I would think that I would need an introductory course in that subject before beginning to understand it's relationship to the whole.
    It took on a lot for one story, and I was carried along very briskly. The clear/clean art felt rather lively to me, as opposed to "blandly attractive".
    I largely enjoyed it.
    My quick take from my (non-scholar) memory.
    - Dave Hartwell